Reflections on form and emptiness

Sunday, March 5, 2017
Glendale, California

Dear Lovely Readers,

Immersed in a recent obsession with Taoism, I write today about form and emptiness. I tie my thoughts into the general theme of this blog which, as you know, concerns the specific type of transformational process known as psychoanalysis or psychoanalytic psychotherapy. The Heart Sutra, a short verse central to Buddhism, has a phrase which reads:

Form is Emptiness.
Emptiness is Form.

What does it mean?

Certainly, thousands of interpretations of the famous stanza exists. I offer but one:

In truth, all is emptiness, but we put form into it. And behind form lies emptiness. Now, what do I mean?

We develop identities, of self and of other, based on bricolage, as Derrida put it. In other words, we make ourselves out of found objects: biological propensities, early childhood environments, sociocultural influences, our particular time in history, and more. This is mostly unconscious. Our “self” is created for us. We wake up one day to find it there. We may alter it, and life events certainly will, but the foundations of it develop outside of our awareness during infancy and toddlerhood.

Setting out on your Sunday plans, for example, perhaps you think of yourself right now as a friend on the way for an afternoon hike and a movie. Perhaps you plan to rest all day, enjoying a book or a movie. Perhaps you have young children, and will devote your afternoon to taking them to a museum and an early dinner. These examples share common social roles, e.g., friend, self, parent. They involve planned activities. They imply destinations — wilderness, movie theaters, homes, museums, restaurants. These are what the Heart Sutra means by forms. The forms in these examples range from names given to persons, like self or friend, to places, like parks or museums.

On another level, and here I bring my old friend Nietzsche, all of these forms are based on our perceptions, our interpretations. He introduced the philosophy of perspectivism which suggests, like the Taoists and Buddhists who predated him by centuries, that nothing really exists. Our perceptions depend upon our perspective which, as Kant first noted (in the West), are entirely dependent on our five senses and our central nervous system. We think the above-noted social roles and places exist, but do they? Or are they just a figment of our perceptions? Existence of, say, a friend, or a movie theater, are creations of culture and history. These, in turn, are creation of humans. They might as well only exist in our imaginations. Homo sapiens only emerged as a distinct species around 200,000 years ago. That’s a rather short time, particularly compared to the earth’s tender age of 4.5 billion years. They certainly will not exist in the future, especially the distant future like 1 billion years from now. They are but temporary forms. Ergo, forms structure emptiness. Emptiness provides the context for forms. The two concepts live side by side.

I imagine readers’ completely reasonable response: “but they exist now; I can go to the movies today or go hike in the mountains.” Yes, true. But what is the “you”? It is a construct, as I just noted, one you rely upon, believe in, have turned into a noun even though it’s not. The self is a verb. It’s always in motion. The noun-ness of the “you” is a lie, a fake, a fabrication. We need such beliefs to prevent insanity. Annihilation anxiety likely resides in the core of all of us, and we unconsciously create constructs, like “self” or “other” or even “movie,” to prevent us from feeling overwhelmed. But they are all illusions, even delusions like the Buddhists think.

Returning to the theme of this blog, the Eastern philosophies also advise viewing the self as a mirror requiring continual polishing. The more dust you clear from your mirror, the more you cease to exist (as a self) and, therefore, the more you simply experience life in the present. Here, again, form (self) turns into emptiness (experience). Activities like meditation, which helps polish the mirror, and depth psychotherapy, which explores our internal constructs of self and other, work hand-in-hand. While meditation can sometimes polish the mirror all by itself, most persons struggle with troubling internal schemas. Perhaps the most common one is the internal critic, harshly analyzing and reviewing one’s life in negative terms. Another less common but equally problematic is the grandiose, idealized self, coping with the interpersonal world through an attitude of superiority. Effective depth psychotherapy brings these structures of the mental world into the interpersonal relationship with the psychotherapist, allowing for discovery of causation (usually trauma) and for alteration (through understanding and practice). In this way, Eastern practices like meditation or mindfulness bring forth presence, living in the moment, and Western practices, like depth psychotherapy, dismantle well-worn, concretized and oft-painful and self-destructive internal schemas.

I truly hope you enjoy your day, and strive to take it in each unique moment, even as it unfolds within the field of nothingness.

With affection,



Derrida, J. (1978). Writing and difference. London: Routledge.

Nietzsche, F. (1996/1878). Human, All Too Human. University of Nebraska Press.

Like this post? Subscribe to Psychoanalyzing Life.